The loon and the landing strip

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A scholarly attempt here to extol the loon and the coot a while back turned out to favor the coot, and I'm told the loons of North America are righteously wroth and are sulking in the wilds until you just can't do a thing with them. I hasten, naturally, to make amends, for I am partial to loons.

The loon is a large waterfowl, not quite so big as a Canada goose, but larger than a wigeon or whistler, or both, and has been on the endangered list since the invention of the 75-horse outboard motor.

The loon is an expert swimmer, for which he uses both wings and webbed feet. He lives on fish, which are taken by diving and chasing. He is also agile in the air. However, he has what are termed "weak feet," and the bird is almost helpless afoot. In this complexity, the female, or hen, arranges her nest with two eggs precisely at the water's edge, so she can roll ashore and incubate, or, in reverse, can roll overboard and be afloat.

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Man, foolishly indulging his whims, accordingly puts an outboard on a boat he should instead paddle or row, and forthwith makes a wake that washes out the loons' nests. The only cheerful note in this situation seems to be that the loon is adjusting, and in time may get deleted from the endangered list. Game wardens tell me they think the loon is on the increase.

In the past, loons liked to allocate a pair to a pond. We know how many acres it takes to support a bluebird family, and two bluebird boxes in one dooryard are one too many. It works about the same way with loons, and a pond to a pair seems to suit. But faced with nesting disasters, the loon seems to have moved to larger lakes, where washouts are fewer and food is present for more loons. Where once we saw two loons, Cauc Lake has shown us 11 in convoy, by our count, and Cauc Lake is 10 miles long and big enough to absorb speedboat wakes.

The loon, unlike warblers and larks, is not a songbird. His cry is a midnight spasm of shriek likened to the anguished yodel of a lost soul with its tail caught in the door. It is, all the same, a thrilling cry to hear, and loved by all who hear it in its wilderness haunt. It is a high-pitched cackle of unbridled, maniacal hilarity. That it comes from five miles up the lake makes you wonder what it's like close by.

The loon needs a considerable stretch of open water for landing and takeoff. It doesn't hop up and fly like a robin or chickadiddle. Its action is more like a pond-hopping floatplane.

Upon deciding it is about to fly, a loon seems to run along for a distance on top of the water, whipping its wings violently, and then winging in rhythm for quite some distance, stirring up the lake and doing much splashing. Then it is airborne, but for many yards will continue to beat its wings on the water.

The achievement of graceful flight culminates a considerable activity. You wonder if the fool will make it. He always does, and on a return his approach is faultless and his setting-down beautiful.

A loon cannot take off from bare ground, and will not land on it. There is on record one lonely instance when a loon made an exception.

It was during World War II, when our Air Force was fairly new and all veteran Air Force officers, up to a brigadier general, were about 16 years old. I mention this to help you understand that our Air Force at that time, while it was handling some sturdy stuff, was not necessarily aware of loons. It is also true that the loons didn't know a great deal about our Air Force, either.

So down around Florence, S.C., which was in the vicinity of the Atlantic flyway, we had a big Air Force base. It was well staffed and had top-notch experts who could take an engine out of a bomber and put in another one in something like 19 seconds. It was an incredibly precise place, and its activity so secret that even today some people think it was really a sweetshop that sold Fannie Farmer chocolates.

It was here, dear friends, that a loon from Varnum's Pond, up here in Maine, approached one evening during a crepuscular shower. Thinking the concrete runway - glistening wet - was an expanse of water, he "landed." The instant his belly touched the cement, he knew he had erred.

The next morning he was discovered by security marines, or somebody, and as a bird on that runway was totally against regulations, a call went to the Pentagon to ask what should be done. The marines were ordered to open fire, but the public affairs officer objected. He thought there must be a better way.

It happened that a boy from Maine was at Florence, and he chuckled and said there was no problem. Give him a blanket and a dozen marines, and he'd remove the loon. "The poor joker thought he was coming in on a river," he explained, which was exactly so.

Well, the marines made a cordon, circled in on the loon, covered him with the blanket, and picked him up. Then he was taken with full military honors in the general's jeep to a nearby stretch of open water and released.

As far as I know, he was the only loon ever to come in to a $25 million Air Force base on a wing and a prayer. My friend, the boy from Maine, said that as the loon took off after this experience in Car'lina, he did not cry in the customary agonized scream of a loon, but distinctly called back to the marines, "Toodle-oo, y'all!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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